Frederic H Cowen

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

I was reminded how deeply sentiment enters into our lives by seeing Frederick H Cowen’s new song, One Morning on the Seashore (published by Broadhurst). Longfellow’s lyric is slender and fragrant, indeed, almost too tender for musical treatment; but Cowen’s delicate hand has the necessary deftness, which is remarkable in a composer of eighty-three. Here it is, for voice and piano, or arranged for a small orchestra of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and strings. It is hardly credible that a man should be writing now with such grace who fifty years ego gave us The Promised Land and The Children’s Home, two songs which enjoyed great popularity.

My association with Cowen’s music began, ever so many years ago when, as a chorister of eleven, I sang in a performance of his early cantata, The Rose Maiden_6. Time for the rehearsals was filched from other sessions by an assistant master who knew how to impart his enthusiasm to his pupils. A few years later I was studying Schumann’s music, particularly the scores of the overtures and the _Rhenish Symphony. The Overture to Manfred fascinated me, and hear it I must. Cowen, then conducting the Hallé Orchestra, the Liverpool Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic, was to give a concert in the town near where my father was living: so I wrote to him at Manchester, saying how much I should like to hear the Manfred overture when he came our way with the Manchester band. The story is disappointing, for nothing so modern was included in the programme; but readers will be less disappointed than I was. I consoled myself by thinking that my letter had never reached him, but now I think that my calligraphy and diction disclosed my age and unimportance. However, I still recall the pleasure I had in listening to the performance of his own delightful orchestral pictures The Language of Flowers.

The last time I saw Cowen conduct was at Leeds, at a concert of the Leeds Philharmonic Society and the Hallé Orchestra, some thirty years ago7. Cowen conducted his choral work, The Seasons, and Stanford conducted a complete performance of Berlioz’s great Requiem Mass. Sad to relate, of my attendance at that concert I remember only two things - the flash from the ring that Cowen was wearing, and the fact that Stanford remained seated whilst conducting Berlioz! The last time I met Sir Frederick, he was on the point of departure for a long journey abroad. He was then nearing eighty, and they tell me he chooses at times to travel in a tramp steamer, with all the seeming discomfort going to a passenger aboard. ‘He just sleeps on a deal board’. This rejection of the artifices of much modem life suggests the source and natural beauty of Cowen’s music: he seeks and finds inspiration in the garden and in viewing the landscape. Why should we wonder at the appeal of his songs?

  1. The only performance of this work in the Potteries that I can find occurred at the North Staffordshire Music Festival in 1891 - by which time Brian would have been 15 and unlikely to have been still a treble. But this could have been a school performance: at age 11 (1887) Brian was still a treble in the choir of St James, Longton. ↩︎

  2. Actually 1906. Cowen (1852-1935), a prolific composer who, at the age of 8, had already written an opera about Garibaldi, is still under-represented in the revival of interest in the English Musical Renaissance (there is a disc on Marco Polo of the Scandinavian Symphony, Indian Rhapsody and the overture The Butterfly's Ball, which HB praises at least by implication in another article - see HB on Music Vol 1, p193).
    As an index of Cowen's one-time stature it's interesting to read a recently-published letter to Brahms, dated 15 October 1885, from his friend the Cologne conductor Franz Wuellner. They are arguing about the worth of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, which Brahms had disparaged. He later changed his mind and acquired the score, possibly because of Wuellner's defence of it: Wuellner was a musician whose judgement he trusted. Wuellner writes: "In fact it has not lived up to my expectations, but still I found it more interesting by far than a new symhony by Gernsheim, Cowen, Scharwenka, etc." Gernsheim and Scharwenka were among the leading contemporary names on the Continent, and we must conclude that Cowen was too. (As I write this note, June 1999, I see that BMG have just issued recordings of Gernsheim's four symphonies!)" ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, pp. 765–766